A few minutes in to Star Trek Beyond, Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine) beams back to the Enterprise after a diplomatic mission goes slightly awry and he winds up having a bit of a fight with some rather small aliens. "Oh, dammit, I tore my shirt again," he says in a lovely, sly nod to the classic series and William Shatner, who originated the role of Kirk back in the mid-1960s. Yes, Star Trek turns 50 this year, and this new film - the third in JJ Abrams' reboot of the franchise with it's skewed timeline – feels very much like a big, expanded (and very good) episode of that TV series.
A little later, Kirk is recording his captain's log and muses that: “Things are starting to feel a little … episodic.” The Enterprise is almost three years in to its five-year mission, and both Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are thinking of moving on K kirk as an Admiral on the star base Yurktown, and Spock to New Vulcan to carry on the work of his now-deceased older self from the alternate timeline, Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy). But the monotony of deep space is soon forgotten when a distress call leads them on a rescue mission on the other side of a nebula – and straight into danger. They encounter the alien Krall (Idris Elba) and his followers, and Krall has plans to wreak havoc on the Federation. So it's up to Kirk and the gang to stop him.
So yes, it's a pretty slim plot – there's a bad guy threatening the Federation and it's up to Kirk and the Enterprise crew to stop him – but Star Trek has rarelky been about plot. Creator Gene Roddenberry's vision was an optimistic future for humanity, a future that saw a united people – no more racism, sexism or other nasty isms – boldly going into the unknown on a mission of peaceful exploration. At its core was a triumvirate of characters that embodied the best of humanity: Kirk, the leader and action man, the doer; Spock, the logical thinker struggling with his human emotions; and McCoy, the often irrational heart and soul (and yes, the emotional core of the group). Star Trek Beyond further explores the relationship between these three men, giving it room to breathe and grow. We know they're friends (hey, they have been for nigh on 50 years) but here, for the first time in this rebooted series, we can really feel the truth of it. And the actors portraying the three have settled in to their characters nicely, really making them their own – although Pine continues to channel Shatner beautifully. But we do get more time with Keith Urban's McCoy this time, which will no doubt please long-time fans; in fact, the whole film may well be accused of being too strong on "fan service", but that is no bad thing. It is because of its fans that Star Trek even exists as a thing today, as the original TV series was cancelled after just three seasons. So hey, the fans deserve a break.
But beyond its fan service, Beyond is thrilling, funny (thanks to a great script from Simon "Scorry" Pegg and Doug Jung), action-packed and brimming with great characters and performances. All the Trek gang get decent screen time and plenty to do. The much-talked-about "coming out" of helmsman Sulu (John Cho) is subtly and beautifully done. The new ally Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) is, thankfully, another strong female character that Hollywood can be proud of. The much-maligned use of the Beastie Boys song Sabotage actually works perfecty in the context of its scene in the film. And, yet again, the poor old Enterprise is destroyed (and it's up to some rusty "old tech" to save the day). Director Justin Lin – best know for his work on the Fast and Furious franchise – is adept at handling both action and ensemble casts, and he acquits himself well. Star Trek Beyond is more of the same and does not set out to reinvent the wheel, but for most of us, that's just what we want from our Trek. And after the "darkness" of the previous outing, Beyond is just the light relief we need.